I know, I know, everyone and their mother has a fricking memoir. But this one is worth reading, even though I’m having a really hard time writing about it.
See on the one hand this book is a page-turner about a scrappy trash-talking kid who lives with her mother, father, and older sister in a miserable, swampy gulf town in Texas. Her family is bizarre in a stranger-than-fiction sort of way, and remains so throughout the book. There’s lots of drinking and lying and yelling and sex and guns. Her momma has a psychotic episode with a butcher knife. You will be titillated.
But then also Ms. Karr is an award-winning poet, and her command of Southern idiom and turn of phrase is so incredibly beautiful and pitch-perfect that bringing up her wackadoo family in a book review feels like a cheap or dirty trick. Mary Karr is a fine writer, and it’s annoying that describing her memoir to anyone sounds like summarizing an episode of “Cops.”
Now, I’m not so stupid as to think that eloquence and entertainment are mutually exclusive, nor do I believe that all memoirs are horrible: St. Agustine’s Confessions is amazing, as is Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. It’s just that so much of what’s been published lately is, frankly, crap.
Recently I was reminded of this beautiful quote from Aleksander Hemon’s novel The Lazarus Project: “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.” It seems to me that this is why we read literature in the first place–for an experience by proxy that provides us with some kind of awareness.
Mary Karr’s book made me aware of how marvelous it is to hear a Southern person tell a story (no matter if it’s entirely, or at all, true). It reminded me of what a strange thing memory is. It enforced my conviction that even a funny, ribald tale can be told in language that is purposeful and lasting. It emphasized why we should all know the meaning of the Greek word “atë.”